I don't know what happened to June, but I think I ate it. It was full of bright green flavors, crisp days filled with sunlight, evenings that were as sweet and fragrant as a mountain primrose. It was strawberry rhubarb pie and baby arugula and French radishes and citrusy spruce tips. June was truly tangy and sweet and tart. Now that it's July we can safely say it's "Grill O'clock." Gone are the tender and sweet moments of early summer replaced by the flavor-packed, juicy and char-grilled days of July.
July is hot and humid in Boston: my days are spent in a sweaty frenzy and my nights (sans air conditioning) are spent tangled in a strange mass of sheets and feverish dreams. I feel, in fact, quite like the vanilla pods at the start of their special curing process, when escaping the heat is never really an option:
"During the sweating period, which may last for ten to twenty days, the pods are spread in the sun daily for several hours until hot and are then folded in blankets to sweat until the following morning." (p. 460 The Book of Spices)
Unlike the vanilla pods, which start out green and turn brown, wrinkly and deeply fragrant during their curing process, I find that I just grow more and more eager for a cold shower and a breezy sundress. While I'm delighted to learn more and write about vanilla, I know I won't do it justice here, tonight, in my sweaty and sticky Monday night vanilla obsession. This one is going to take a few more blog entries, a few more explorations, a few more vanilla-infused evenings where I breathlessly consider the history and present day usage of this mysterious and economically important orchid-fruit.
So I won't write a comprehensive history of vanilla with its origins in the damp forests of Central Amercia, nor will I draw you a diagram of the chemical composition of vanillin, the organic compound responsible for the flavor we know and love which is only produced as a result of curing these special orchid fruits, nor will I divulge all the facts related to imitation vanilla products (including ones made from wood or toxic ones now banned by the FDA) or even the process by which true vanilla extract is made. Tonight is not the night for all of that. And it's not the night for "Eggnog Mexicana," or even "Vanilla Cottage Cheese Cupcakes" (found on p. 464 of my newly acquired Book of Spices published in 1969) because both eggnog and cottage cheese should be illegal products to consume during the month of July. But I WILL give you a recipe that is, I think, my all-time favorite vanilla recipe.
Grilled Pineapple with Vanilla-Saffron Syrup
This recipe is so simple it's almost silly, but it's not necessarily a flavor combination everyone might be familiar with. Something about the tart and tropical flavors of pineapple is complimented perfectly with the comforting and rich flavors of vanilla. Earthy saffron balances out the equation, bridging the high-pitched acidity of the pineapple with the rich base-notes of vanilla. And grilling caramelizes the sugars, which makes the whole shebang just fantastic. I strongly recommend using a piece of a real vanilla pod for this recipe!
For the syrup:
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
pinch of saffron
1" piece of vanilla pod (or 1 TB vanilla extract)
Bring all the ingredients to a boil on the stove. Once it's reached a boil, turn off the heat and cover, allowing the saffron and vanilla to steep while you prepare the pineapple (let steep at least 20 minutes). Can be made a day ahead and chilled.
For the pineapple:
Cut the pineapple in half lengthwise, and then two more times, so you end up with long strips of pineapple. Cut off the tough core but leave the rind on.
Grill on both sides until pineapple is golden and the sugars have started to caramelize.
Place grilled pineapple on a platter and pour the sauce over top.